A collision of past and present
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 29, 2011
Based on novelist Tatiana de Rosnay's 2007 Holocaust-themed bestseller, "Sarah's Key" is a movingly told tale of tragedy and its consequences, not just for the players in the original tragedy but also for those touched by their actions, in an ever-widening circle of aftershocks.
A fictionalized account of what has become known as the Vel d'Hiv roundup, the movie centers on the notorious arrest, on July 16 and 17 of 1942, of thousands of Parisian Jews, who were detained for several days - under shockingly inhumane conditions - in the Velodrome d'Hiver cycling stadium, before being deported to death camps. Even more shocking is the fact that it was not the Nazis who carried out the roundup and deportations but the French themselves, acting at the behest of the occupying German forces.
The event and its repercussions are shown through two sets of eyes, and in two separate time frames. In 1942, it is the titular, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance) who sets the wheels in ghastly, grinding motion when, as the police arrive to take her family away, she locks her little brother (Paul Mercier) in a secret closet, swearing to return and let him out in a day or so. Needless to say, things don't work out that way.
But before we learn the boy's fate, or Sarah's, or anyone else's, the film (directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner) jumps ahead to 2009, as Paris-based American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) begins to collect information for a historical article she's writing about Vel d'Hiv. As luck - or literary necessity - would have it, Julia is also simultaneously preparing to move into the very apartment that the Starzynskis once lived in and that the family of Julia's husband (Frederic Pierrot) has owned since August of 1942. Of course, there are secrets to discover.
These two trains - one barreling out of the past, the other charging backward toward it from the present - must inevitably collide. When they do, it's with a shuddering crash. The fact that you can see it coming from a long way off makes no difference. It's profoundly sad, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
Not that you would want to if you could.
Paquet-Brenner's screenplay (written with Serge Joncour) is poignant and cathartic, and not without hope. As the film jumps back and forth in time, the stories of the two central characters, Julia and Sarah (played as an adult by Charlotte Poutrel), become intertwined until they are one, or feel as if they are. The film's balance is masterful, juggling a modern-day mystery, a nail-biting escape adventure told in flashback, and richly nuanced psychological drama on both sides.
As Julia, Scott Thomas is her usual compelling presence. She makes you feel the necessity of every question she asks and the trepidation that comes before each answer. But it is Mayance who carries the film. In her child's eyes, we see the horrors she has seen and the struggle between survival and giving up that animates and torments her.
On a literal level, the title "Sarah's Key" refers to the one that unlocks the closet where her brother hid. But it also works metaphorically. The movie opens doors to the past and to the present. But the most important door it opens is the one that connects the two.